End of semester thoughts

Looking at a stack of papers I need to grade and yet not feeling the energy to do so. Late night classes take more out of me than I care to admit. My physiology class ended with student presentations and a look at bipolar disorder. As we concluded the class, I asked them to remember that,

  1. Even with all the advances in neuroscience, we must humbly admit we still know little how we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
  2. It is good for counselors to keep learning about the body and at the same time hold what they know lightly. Tomorrow may bring evidence to the contrary
  3. Yet, what we know about the body can be helpful. We ought not to look down upon our ignorance but remember that doctors do not always explain or walk with patients
  4. There are great medical interventions available, but (and that but shouldn’t diminish what I said before it),
  5. Over and over we saw that the basics (maintaining balance in life, self-care, mindfulness) are so important to health, perspective, etc. No, they aren’t magic interventions. Yes, they pay-off over time rather than immediately.

On this last point I am pondering a bit and so let me be hyperbolic. Most people who come to see me for paid counseling come because they think (naively) I have some expertise that will shed light on their situation and a solution to their problems. They want me to do something. Why else pay that kind of money? And yet much of what I have to offer isn’t rocket science. Beyond a few fun techniques, what I have to offer is a listening ear, a willingness to walk with the other person in their travail, and encouragement to keep going back to the basics. Most people like the first two but balk at the last one. Why do we balk at going back to the basics? Two reasons: (1) we want something that will fix the problem NOW, and (2) we’ve tried the basics and they didn’t seem to work (see reason 1).

Examples of what I mean.

  • If you are a parent and you go to a counselor to deal with your young child’s behavior problem. More than likely, you will get some counselor telling you to use some reinforcement strategies. And what do many parents say? “I tried that and it didn’t work.” Chances are they did try it and either they didn’t keep at it or they didn’t realize they were doing something that reinforced the wrong thing, or they had a misguided view of what success should look like
  • A couple is struggling with fighting. They go to the counselor who encourages them to return to the basics of respectful talk. Usually, they will feel like they have already tried it–and it didn’t work. Chances are… You get the picture.

In physiology, we see that care for the body includes mindful meditation (My friend and former professor says a substitute word would be “watchfulness”) on the world as God sees it, developing and maintaining good circadian rhythms, watching food intake, exercise, maintaining healthy relationships and social supports. In every mental illness, these things are shown to decrease the severity of symptoms and delay relapse.

Here’s the problem: we forget the basics and because they don’t give immediate results, we go searching for other fast-acting mechanisms. For example, I want to feel safe. Instead of engaging in centering prayer over the long haul, I fall prey to the temptation to act in such a way to avoid all possible danger–thereby increasing my fears of danger.

If I don’t exercise (and I don’t much) I rarely get immediate feedback that my body is falling apart. If I don’t eat right, I don’t immediately gain 10 pounds. If I don’t pray, I don’t immediately get embittered. So, I assume that these basics aren’t all that important. Or, I know they are important but since they don’t pay off now, I don’t do them. I only do what demands I do it to avoid a crisis.

How do we stay on track with the basics? We need another person(s) willing to keep us on a short leash. As a kid I ran because I had a friend who was going to wonder where I was. As a doctoral student, I played basketball at 6 am because my peers would  ask me where I was. I lost some weight a couple of years ago because my wife and I worked together. Notice that the social accountability is a key facet to help us build the disciplines long enough to see that the pay off is more than can be delivered by an exciting new technique.


Filed under Biblical Seminary, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, Cognitive biases, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, teaching counseling

2 responses to “End of semester thoughts

  1. Those are simple, yet profound thoughts. The idea of short term versus long term gratification keeps us either moving in the right or wrong direction.

    Finished a good book recently over the physical side of our mental health titled “Spark” about science and the the effects exercise has on the brain.

  2. Carmella

    Thanks for this post, Phil!

    I find myself thinking a lot about restoring balance to my off-balance life, and how my well being in various forms seems to slip away when I don’t manage my time well, allow distractions to have some of my valuable time, lose exercise, lose my healthy eating practices, lose sleep and then lose any meditation/quiet time with God (often in that order)… where I then find myself stressed with no outlet, sluggish, tired, grumpy, non-reflective, and overly relying on caffeine.

    As people providing services for others, learning, and balancing work, school, and our personal lives can be one of our biggest indicators of successes or failures… Now I think I just have to get back into my healthier routine.

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